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Catch and Kill

 

Freedom of the press is not just important to democracy, it is democracy.

 

--Walter Cronkite

 

To have enslaved America with this hocuspocus! To have captured the mind of the world's greatest nation without uttering a single word of truth! Oh, the pleasure we must be affording the most malevolent man on earth!

 

Philip Roth, "The Plot Against America," a novel published in 2004

 

In the beginning, all the world was America

John Locke

 

I've been thinking about the upcoming Harvey Weinstein criminal trial, which begins in a few days, and Ronan Farrow's riveting podcast, "Catch and Kill," based on the book of the same name, which I have not, as yet, read. I did read the New Yorker pieces upon which the book is based, and I'm impressed with Farrow, a still young, brave investigative reporter who has been "hunted," surveilled, forced to move, threatened. It took him more than two years to get the story.


His interview style is patient and kind, and he's well educated, a lawyer and Rhodes scholar; he asks incisive questions. It is no wonder that several of the eighty-seven women who were assaulted by Weinstein entrusted him with their stories. Formerly an anchor and reporter for a NBC investigative unit, Farrow's bosses at the network did not value his integrity and determination. They succumbed to pressure, a complicated story in itself, and killed the Weinstein story.


I've lamented the demise of real journalism in my blog more than once, and the struggle of determined reporters to do their work, free of prior restraint, a form of censorship unacceptable in a democracy. The firewall between the editorial departments and business departments eroded slowly over a period of years; it has now completely shredded. What we cover, what eventually is published or broadcast, depends, largely, on the demographics of the audience and the stated—and sometimes unstated—wishes of the advertisers. In many regions in the United States, one person, or one corporation, owns all the newspapers, cable, television and radio stations, an unhealthy monopoly, and though the reporters on staff are real reporters, many of the articles read like PR handouts. Equally insidious is the reliance on clickbait, a headline, article, or photograph designed to entice readers to click on a sometimes questionable hyperlink.


I often have students from China in my NYU workshop, usually the children of government officials or successful business owners. I have a prepared speech about freedom of the press in the United States, an explanation targeted particularly at them, and any other overseas students from despotic regimes. It's our mandate to get under the skin of a story, I say, and write our hearts out in a bold voice. A writer must feel absolutely free, and we are free here in America. Witness the proliferation of podcasts, print stories, editorials, online magazines, and investigative reports in recent years. That's how I begin. It's only later in the term that I talk about the censorship of the marketplace, clickbait, product placement, the presence of the publicist at the interview spinning the story, the power of advertisers and targeted social media, the new phenomena of journalists being "hunted," not jailed, thankfully, but "hunted." I was shocked when I heard Ronan Farrow use this word on the podcast and relieved that he was not hurt as he gathered the story, though he admits that he was frightened when he realized he was being followed by a private spy agency.


As editors and writers we swim upstream against these dangerous anti-democratic trends and a regime in Washington that is oblivious to our Constitution and Bill of Rights. We must be as courageous as Ronan Farrow and persevere.

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Building Bridges With Words

Il était une fois: once upon a time. This is the French “word of the day” that popped up in my email this morning. How quaint considering the outcome of the election. I have started to fill in the blank, as follows: Once upon a time women could not vote. Once upon a time slaves worked the fields and built the White House. Once upon a time, not so very long ago, gay marriage was against the law. Once upon a time, not so very long ago, interracial marriage was against the law. Once upon a time my refugee parents found safe haven in America.

And so on.

We all have our personal election stories to tell and many of them will continue to be troubled and troubling. For our personal health and well being, we have to regain our balance quickly. We all have friends, neighbors and family who have different religious beliefs, different politics, different priorities and challenges. Maybe they refused to vote, or voted for a third party on the ticket and this infuriated us. Maybe we stopped calling them and they stopped calling us, or we unfriended them on Facebook without warning or explanation.

As writers, it is our mandate to observe deeply and to build verbal bridges, not walls. Not to normalize the abnormal, I am not suggesting that. Nor to soften hardship or pretend all is okay when it is not okay. But to be able to continue a conversation, not to shut it down, that is what a writer must do, what we all must try to do in the coming months and years.

First things first, I wrote to my student, Valerie Pepe. For two years we worked on her book “Deformed; My Remarkable Life,” which has just been published. I knew a while ago that Valerie and I did not share the same politics; she supported Carson, I supported Bernie Sanders. I never discussed our choices, never brought it up, never responded to her stories about Carson. But, recently, we became Facebook friends. I usually keep my personal FB page private and suggest that my students “like” my Carol Bergman: Writer professional page. But sometimes these boundaries are permeable. My company had published Valerie’s book, we had worked together for more than two years, she is a mature and special person. I said yes.

I knew that I could hide my long post-election Facebook post from Valerie, but I decided not to do that. Instead, I sent her a private message:

"I don't allow many students to become my FB friend. You have been special. But we don't share the same politics. I have known this since you told me you supported Carson. You will read my post this morning and realize my dismay at the election results. I hope we will be able to talk about it."

Gracious as ever, Valerie wrote back to me immediately:

"Our Friendship comes first over anything political. Everyone has the right to believe in what they want. Miss you lots. I have a book signing tonight! All the best, Valerie"


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